Teaching is personal

We are invited to teach information as though it does not emerge from bodies.

~bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

Often times I hear the phrase, “separate your personal and professional lives.” Of course, this catch-all phrase assumes a dichotomy and that separating our personal and professional lives is actually possible. It makes the issue a matter of black-and-white. It’s as if our home and work lives are completely distinct.

I can’t speak for other professions (I’ve only ever been a teacher), but I’m more and more convinced that this just isn’t so for teaching.

Teaching has always felt like a profession that does a great job of blurring the lines between the personal and professional. The work we do in the classroom is so humanistic in nature. We are in the business of helping other humans better themselves through learning. We help them uncover new ideas, connect it to what they already know, and reflect on why it matters in the long run. For me, these are the types of human interactions that require my full self to do effectively.

Similarly, my last post hints at how my professional life has influenced my personal life. I probably wouldn’t have made the decisions about buying custom t-shirts and using sidewalk chalk to make accessible math for my community had I been a construction worker or a dentist.

Back to teaching, I suppose we can help students uncover objective facts neutrally. We can attempt to “remove” ourselves from the delivery of content. We could teach by focusing only on the purely academic (see definition 2) side of things. But by doing so, we disregard every human in the room. And teaching is very, very personal work. Every day in my classroom, there are over 30 wildly diverse personalities converging. This convergence is an explosion of knowledge and social and emotional tendencies that cannot be forced to do anything that’s worth doing. Over the course of a school year, somehow I must learn who my students are as learners and people. I must plan for them, their dispositions, their vulnerabilities, their cultures, their identities, their families. I must somehow leverage all this human capital for the betterment of everyone present. I’ve realized that this happens tortuously slowly, like a tugboat pushing a barge. But at the same time, it also happens collectively and in unison. In a recent talk, Patrick Honner so eloquently said that teaching “brought me back to the edge of human knowledge…and it’s not lonely out there, because we’re out there together.”

Because we are bound to our students on this adventure to better ourselves each day, how can we be expected to be mindful of our students’ personal lives, their lived experiences, if it is expected that we forget about our own once we welcome them into the classroom?

Who I am as a person outside of the classroom universally affects what I do inside the classroom. If I am teaching genuinely, my two “lives” are inseparable. Do I forget this at times? Heck yeah. When I do forget it, I say and do things at critical points that separate who I am from the situation. Usually, my decision is one that dodges conflict and that allows everyone to sit peacefully in their comfort zone. I don’t challenge the given.

As the inherent leaders of our classrooms, acknowledging and embracing our personal lives and attitudes in the classroom is critical to its ultimate success. This happens when we plan before students arrive and during class on a one-on-one and whole class basis. Most teachers don’t even realize it when it’s happening. Justifyably so, many of us (myself included) place much of our energy on addressing our students’ needs and forget about our own selves in relation to that work. But just like our students, we too have personal histories, interests, identities, and biases. These features are deeply rooted in who we are as people and, consequently, who we are as teachers. As important and involved as teaching is, I’ve found that it demands that I purposely recognize, and integrate, my personal self as part of the process.

As teachers, who we are matters. A lot. In fact, whether we like it or not, our personal lives are already part of our professional lives. If we can do our best to welcome that into our practice by design, while it won’t make our work any easier, it may make what we do with students more relevant and forthcoming. Maybe.

bp

Summer 2015: An Immersive Research Experience…The After Party

Earlier this summer I wrote about a research experience that I was taking part in: SMARTER, an RET instituted by NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. The experience was profound. Here’s a recap of my takeaways.

Composite material

  • Firstly, a learned a good deal about composite materials. Going into the program, I had the slightest idea what a composite material even was. During orientation my curiosity was stoked by Nikhil Gupta, my research mentor, about his area of expertise (primarily because he mentioned that his research impacts the U.S. military). But other than that spark, I had no real foundation for where to start the research. Naturally, this equates to an information overload and, in the end, a substantial amount of learning on my end. Part of me wished my research tied in closer to what I teach everyday, but the other part of me understands that being forced into foreign territory was exactly what I needed.

Research Results Chart

  • My partner and I decided to make repurposing waste materials the centerpiece of the research. Specifically, we were interested in the impact that fly ash, human hair, and glass microspheres have when integrated with cement. What did we learn? The results were somewhat inconclusive, but we did discover an ideal proportion of fly ash to glass microspheres that would optimize the peak stress (i.e. the point at which the material begins to break down) of the composition. We expected that the human hair would have a greater impact on the overall strength of all the composites, but the results were fairly mixed.
  • A facet of the experience that surprised me was the collaboration that it involved. When you work with a perfect stranger for an extended period of time, things can get rocky. I didn’t learn to appreciate my partner’s perspective until later in the research; she taught me a ton about seeing things with a starkly different outlook and how this is necessary for the team to succeed. It also pushed me to open my mind and connect with ideas that I initially found hard to accept. I was reminded that everyone has strengths that are both unique and amazing…and that productivity sometimes hinges on the ability to focus on those strengths.
  •  The most significant impact of the experience was the uplifting inspiration it provided me. Before SMARTER, I had a deep-rooted desire to grow as a professional, but I had no ambition to further my education or seek a higher level of certification. But after a brief conversation with a Ph.D candidate who was aiding in our analysis, I left with an unexpected desire to push myself further than I ever thought I would. It was his laudable attitude coupled with the overall atmosphere at the university that left me wanting much more than just to complete my research and get back to teaching.
  • What does this mean? It means that one day I will 1) earn National Board Certification and 2) obtain a doctorate in mathematics education. Yup. I am now eagerly awaiting these immense challenges in the years to come. Thanks Eduardo.

This is my evolution thanks to SMARTER. My students, school community and myself are all much better because of it.

 

bp